When I was growing up, my parents, for a while, had a subscription to Time Magazine. Oh, how I loved getting it in the mail each week: colorful, and very informative (even if I didn’t know what most of it meant).
I especially remember the issue that had the King Tut cover, when the travelling exhibit was finally making its way to the U.S. I knew growing up in a small town meant I wouldn’t get a chance to see it in person – there was no way they’d bring that much super-cool stuff to Southwest Virginia – but I could definitely read all about it in Time!
But, as the old cliché says, ‘Times change.”
The internet has given people all over the world a voice, and Time recognized this, first by allowing people to comment on their stories online, and then allowing them to voice their opinion for who should be selected as the magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’.
The criteria for selecting Person of the Year is supposed to be “the individual or group of individuals who have had the biggest effect on the year’s news”. I don’t recall exactly when they changed the name from ‘Man of the Year’ to ‘Person of the Year’, and it doesn’t really matter – this simply made an allowance for them to choose groups of people instead of individuals (even though they had done so before, with such selections of ‘The American Fighting Man’, which represented troops who had fought in Korea, ‘American Scientists’, ‘Baby Boomers’, etc. Sometimes the groups were represented by a handful of individuals (like the American Scientists), but most often they were a faceless collective – the groups we hear about in the news.
And before it comes up, they had previously selected women as ‘Woman of the Year’. The last one was in 1986 (Corazon Aquino), and there had been a couple before her, but there have been women on the list. You can find a complete list of previous winners here.
What it boils down to here is that Time Magazine has a long history of journalistic integrity; their nominations for Man/Person of the Year have always been those who were, for lack of a better term, world-changers. Sometimes they were popular with the public, sometimes not.
And there have definitely been controversies; in 1938, Adolph Hitler was selected. Stalin won in 39 and 42. The straw that broke the back of the public camel came when the Ayatollah Khomeini was chosen in 79. Since then, the magazine has avoided using polarizing figures or people who weren’t in favor with the public.
For example, Rudolph Giuliani was the choice in 2001 following the September 11 attacks. Per Wikipedia, “The issue that declared Giuliani the Person of the Year included an article that mentioned Time’s earlier decision to elect the Ayatollah Khomeini and the 1999 rejection of Hitler as Person of the Century. The article seemed to imply that Osama bin Laden was a stronger candidate than Giuliani, as Adolf Hitler was a stronger candidate than Albert Einstein. The selections were ultimately based on what the magazine describes as who they believed had a stronger influence on history and who represented either the year or the century the most. According to Time, Rudolph Giuliani was picked for symbolizing the American response to the September 11th attacks, and Albert Einstein picked for representing a century of scientific exploration and wonder.”
Some, including myself, would say that this was when Time Magazine stopped caring as much about the news as they do public opinion.
I realize, they’re a business – they have to sell their magazine. As a business owner, I understand that completely. But at what point do you allow the public to override journalistic integrity? Sometimes the news isn’t pretty. We all know this. We see it every day on the 6:00 news (or 24 hours news stations, if those are what we watch). It’s plastered across the front page of every news site on the internet. So why is it not okay for Time Magazine to declare Osama Bin Laden ‘Person of the Year’ for 2001? He certainly made the news.
It’s not like he’d be asked to come to the head offices of Time Magazine and receive his award. There would be no photo ops, no $700 per plate banquets held in his honor, with a bunch of distinguished people making speeches. It simply means that he, per their own guidelines, had the biggest effect on the year’s news.
So let’s go back a few years and look at the ‘winners’.
In ’99 we had Jeffrey Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com. 2000 brought us George W. Bush. 2001, as previously mentioned, was Giuliani. 2002 was the year of ‘The Whistleblowers’ (remember Enron?). 2003 gave us ‘The American Soldier’. President Bush was again selected in ’04, and ’05 saw ‘The Good Samaritans’ (represented by Bono and Melinda and Bill Gates). 2006 was kind of a copout with ‘You’, the individual content creator of the World Wide Web. (Yes, I understand the inherent irony.) Then Putin made the list in ’07. In ’08 they were back to ‘Whoever was elected President’ (Obama), ’09 saw Bernanke.
Okay, that was kind of a joke. Facebook became the new way to contact people. If you didn’t have a Facebook presence, you were out of the eye of the general public. So maybe Facebook should have been Person of the Year instead of Zuckerberg himself. Who knows.